Buon Natale! Christmas arrives early in Milan. At the end of november, stores start stocking up these large, beautiful, if slightly awkwardly-shaped boxes – Panettone has arrived! So can Christmas be far behind?
Panettone is the `official’ Italian Christmas bread – alas, baking is not my favourite thing-to-do, so I just buy it. Unwrapping the package sends aromas of baked goodness wafting into the air, and I can’t wait to cut into it! It looks HUGE – “There’s no way I can eat even a single slice of that!” is the immediate reaction..but wait…that’s because it is a leavened, `thrice-risen’ bread – full of air and lightness. For me, the beauty is in the cupola shape – reminds me of the Florentine domes.
The traditional Milanese panettone is studded with raisins and orange and lemon peel, adding texture and flavor. There are of course modern versions which are plain or have chocolate chips. I am a traditionalist!
Speaking of tradition, I was pretty surprised to know that Panettone became the `official’ Christmas bread only about a century ago, when an enterprising baker named Angelo Motta (yes – motta..for those who do not speak Hindi, mota=fat!) started baking this bread in large quantities around Christmas. Other bakers started to do the same, and voila! A tradition was born.
So where did Motta get his recipe from? As is the case with many foods, legends and stories abound. There is evidence that the ancient Romans baked a similar leaved bread sweetened with honey. Such a bread has also been depicted in some medieval paintings and mentioned in an old recipe book.
There is an endearing story about a banquet which was held at the court of the Sforza Duke of Milan in the 1500s, and for whatever reason, the dessert was burned. Panic stricken chefs rushed around trying to find a substitute (“Off with his head” might have been a major motivator) when a little kitchen boy named Toni timidly piped up – he had made a dessert for himself with leftover flour, butter and sugar, and would the chef care to try it? Well, that was that – the Duke loved it, the chef kept his head, and the bread was named Pane de Toni (Toni’s bread).
A romantic story is that of a Milanese nobleman who fell in love with a baker’s daughter, and to impress her he baked up a luxurious bread called Pane de Tono (Bread of Luxury). Either way, all legends seem to lead back to Milan and it’s logical – no one does luxury like the Milanese.
So here’s what this luxurious bread looks like on the inside.
Typically, panettone is served with a sweet beverage – a rich hot chocolate, or a sweet wine like Moscado. Breakfast, dessert or a snack – it fits all! I like to toast it a bit before I eat it – so I get a warm crisp exterior and a flaky soft interior…ummm…heaven on a plate! So may joy and peace be yours in this festive season as you luxuriate in the warmth of family and friends.